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Arslan (S.F. MASTERWORKS) Paperback – 9 Dec 2010
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"This is wonderful and terrifying SF--terrifying because its premise, the takeover of the United States by a third-rate world power, is at once so preposterous and yet, in the hands of this highly skilled writer, so stupefyingly believable. Certainly "Arslan" is the best political novel I've read in more than a decade."--Samuel R. Delany
"Engh creates a truly shocking situation, introduces a monstrous character, and then refuses to satisfy any of the emotions he has aroused . . . Engh's performance is as perversely flawless as Arslan's."--"The New York Times"
""Arslan "is an astonishing novel--not just for its strange and uncompromising content, but as well for the unforgivable passing of a decade before its being published in a permanent edition. This phantasmagorical vision of an America occupied by a foreign power is a tour de force. It is shocking, chilling and thoughtful."--Edward Bryant
"Arslan's goal is not merely to conquer the world, but to destroy it. Just by chance, it seems, he has chosen a small Illinois town to be the capital of his all-embracing empire. Yet this is not really the tale of great world events. It all comes down to a handful of unforgettable men and women, whose pain and cruelty and compassion shine a spotlight on human nature. What makes Engh's novel extraordinary is her perfect understanding of power, how it grows out of the heat between people who hate and fear each other. Arslan makes Khomeini look wishy-washy, as he takes ordinary people and tears at them until they die, or become strong enough to be his rivals. "Arslan" starts with a strong science fiction premise--and then raises it to the level of the greatest tragedies. You will find surprises almost from the start, as Engh shatters the tired cliches of the genre. And by the end of the book, exhausted and fulfilled, you will realize you have read something that stands head and shoulders above the other fiction of its time."--Orson Scott Card
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
A classic of political science fiction.See all Product description
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The premise is an odd one, but is carried through with confidence. Arslan, a general from `Turkistan', becomes the leader of a Soviet backed coup in which the US's defences are disabled, allowing Arslan to take control of America. He makes the small town of Kraftsville his headquarters, and we, together with the citizens of Kraftsville, gradually learn more about his plans, which are partly driven by a (very dark) green agenda, and a wish to return humanity to a more self-sufficient way of life.
Arslan is compared with Tamburlaine, and the novel, like Marlowe's play, is morally disorienting, and made me wonder quite how we were meant to respond to its ruthless but charismatic central character and his radical environmentalist agenda. It's a really astonishing novel, and fully worthy of its place in the Masterworks series. However the second half is not quite as compelling as the first.
So far as considerations as to whether or not this book belongs in the sci fi masterworks series, well, I would say most definitely, for its flaws its definitely a masterwork, it is a dystopia, the first half reading like a political thriller, the final half much, much more strongly a post-apocalyptic novel with the realisation, or supposed realisation, of some of the dark designs begun and elaborated upon in the book's first half. This section of the book reminded me films like The Postman (a notable departure from the book it was adapted from) and The Book of Eli. I would say that on the strength of this it could be recommended to fans of science fiction but it is not "inner" science fiction, such as Philip K Dick's sci fi, or space opera or futurism or scientific romance etc.
However, while the story is that of a backwater dictators son rising to complete world conquest, setting up HQ in small town USA, possessing a vision of dividing the world in materially impoverished districts (definite precursor to Hunger Games here) the better to ensure the disappearence of civilisation as his legacy, the book is a strongly personal narrative driven story. Its the central cast of about three or four characters, only two of which are directly narrators, who occupy centre stage throughout and I suppose whether or not you find the character building of each convincing enough will determine whether or not you find the ultimate conclusion plausible. For my part (no spoilers here) I disliked the finish but thought stranger things have been known to happen, there's no way it could be predicted from the beginning but I think the point being that a lot of time and events had taken place in the interim.
What I do find startling is that this book dates from 1978, at least the older hardback edition I have is copyrighted from then, and I'm sure that some readers would find some of the content obscenely violent, then or now, but at least presently Arslan would have to compete with other examples from fiction such as Neegan in The Walking Dead or Ramsey The Bastard from Game of Thrones. Reader be warned because I think that Arslan proves himself the match of either in terms of torture, terror and violent manipulation.
Finally, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in books by Erich Fromm. It is nothing more than coincidence, I'm sure, but the fictional characters within this book illustrate brilliantly a lot of Fromm's points in non-fiction. Particularly Fromm's book The Fear of Freedom and its depiction of the sado-masochistic traits (that its insufficient to conquer/violate/control but also seduce/recruit/enchant) and his ideas about biophilious/necrophilious personality types, since Arslan desires death, in fact, nothing short of the extinction of the entire human race. Even Frank Bond, the school principle and man of principles, gradually but repeatedly relenting over time seems much more like a series of rationalisations than it does adapting in hard nosed fashion to realpolitik.
An unnerving read.
If, on the the other hand, you believe SF can be a medium for serious consideration of serious themes, give it your urgent attention. Arslan tells of what happens when the title character, a central Asian warlord, takes control of the entire world, and, in particular, how this affects a small Illinois town, Kraftsville, where he sets up his headquarters. The book's main weakness is its failure to give a fully credible explanation as to how this happens, why he chooses Kraftsville and why, eventually, the citizens accept him as one of their own. Engh touches on all of these things, but they remain a little underdeveloped and unconvincing. This - and the portrayal of Arslan himself, which isn't quite as compelling as it needs to be - means the book isn't quite the masterpiece some have said. Nevertheless, it's a very significant achievement, one of the best novels of character in the entire SF canon, and well worth five stars. The one-star reviews elsewhere are egregious claptrap. Example: they suggest that nothing very much happens, which is complete codswallop. Plenty happens. It just doesn't happen in the melodramatic manner that's usual in genre fiction, and the ending is downbeat and ambiguous because life isn't like genre fiction.
Engh probably underworks the plotting because she's not so much interested in what happens as in why, and how it affects those caught up in the events. Engh is a classical scholar and Arslan is explicitly noted in the novel as being a near-future parallel to Alexander the Great (though he has a back-to-the-Stone-Age eco-terrorist agenda that means he's like Alexander mixed up with Ra's Al-Ghul, or Pol Pot if you're being less fanciful). What she's interested in is what drives people like Alexander (and charismatic tyrants generally), and how those around them are compulsively drawn to them even though they are totally aware of the horrific deeds they perpetrate. In that sense, Arslan more closely resembles "The Persian Boy", Mary Renault's great novel about Alexander, than it does traditional SF.
It's also a novel about how communities rebuild themselves after devastating change, about ruined childhoods, and about fathers and sons - particularly, but not exclusively, Hunt Morgan (who starts as one of Arslan's victims but becomes an ambiguous and troubled admirer), Franklin Bond (Kraftsville's mayor and Hunt's "good" adopted father), and Arslan himself (Hunt's "bad" adopted father). The relationship between Bond and Arslan is also explored throughout, with its further ambiguities the source of much of the book's considerable tension. I've used the word "ambiguous" a lot in this review, because ambiguity is the core theme in the novel. After all, why do we, as a species, invest so much admiration in leaders who are clearly dangerous? It's a big, difficult question, and Engh's novel is an engrossing and serious attempt to answer it. If she doesn't wholly succeed, that only goes to show how important that question is, and how it recurs through history. For that reason, it's a challenging, haunting and thought-provoking book.
PS I don't normallly comment on other reviews but the two one-star reviews for Arslan can't go unchallenged. If those readers found it boring, that's their prerogative (personally, I found it highly readable, and raced through it in three consecutive nights). More specific points merit an answer.
Engh's style first. J. Hanson feels that Engh is trying to display her literary credentials throughout, and "Richard" comments on the "hideously pretentious language". These are gross misrepresentations. Most of the book is told as first-person narrative from Franklin Bond, a small-town pragmatist, whose voice is emphatically plain-speaking American demotic, and markedly unpretentious. Literary references occur only once in the sections narrated by Bond: they take up less than one page and are quoted directly in a scene where Hunt Morgan is reading aloud to Arslan. The remaining sections, narrated by Hunt Morgan, are indeed highly-wrought, almost neurotic in their use of language and full of literary references. They're quite tough to read. Hunt Morgan, however, is a deeply damaged, over-educated young man and his voice reflects exactly how deeply damaged, over-educated young people often DO express themselves, and they can be tough to put up with. Arslan is also highly intelligent and disturbed, and he too has a strange, distinctive way of speaking. Fellow reviewers: this is what we call "characterisation".
Richard then accuses the book of being pretentious overall. This suggests he doesn't really know the difference between "pretentious" and "serious". His comments that nothing is explained are totally undermined by his confession that he didn't read the second half: hey, guess when the explanations turn up? Those explanations, as noted, aren't wholly satisfactory, but to say they're not there at all is simply incorrect. He also notes that Bond "plots a hideously token revolution which ultimately fails". Well, no. He is the secret head of a resistance movement, which (as Richard might realise if he'd actually read the whole thing) doesn't fail, but succeeds in an unexpected way. Bond and his movement have nothing to do with the most open act of rebellion against Arslan, and, despite initial and brutal suppression, that doesn't exactly fail either. Ambiguities, again. Crikey, you'd almost think Engh knew what she was doing.
As for Richard's comments on the "elaborate" introduction by Adam Roberts which says "how good it is" because of an event near the end, I'm not sure how "elaborate" five pages of writing about a three-hundred page novel really is (compare and contrast with a typical Penguin Classic, for example). Furthermore, Roberts' praise is for the book as a whole, in all its aspects, and not based on one incident. Roberts emphasises that scene to make a point, but to say that it's the whole reason for his enthusiasm is inaccurate and misleading. Everyone has the right to like or dislike a book, but not to "justify" their opinion with gross distortions and untruths.
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I regret doing so, and I'm writing this review in case anyone is sensible enough to check the...Read more
Disappointingly naïve, not credible, after the build up. I shall not be looking for other works by this authoress